CNN posted an article today called “The Downside of ‘Friends with Benefits,'” which is another example of someone writing about sex without taking a look at their own assumptions about sex, relationships, and how people work.
The focus of the article is the increase of STIs and the claim that having more than one partner at the same time (“concurrency” if you want to get technical) increases one’s risk for sexually transmitted infections. I can buy that- if you’re exposed to more people (everything else being equal), you’re at a higher risk, just like you’re at a higher risk for the flu if you’re around lots of people than if you stay home.
According to the article The Contexts of Sexual Involvement And Concurrent Sexual Partnerships, having sex with a friend or having casual partners correlates with being non-monogamous. Again, not a surprise, although perhaps it’s good to remember that correlation is not causation. The CNN article then quotes Bowling Green State University professor Peggy Giordano. She studies the sexual behavior of young people and she has concerns non-romatic sex:
“It seems more acceptable now to have nonromantic sexual encounters,” said Giordano, who’s studied the sex lives of 1,300 teens and young adults in Lucas County, Ohio. “When there’s no romance, there’s no basis for demanding fidelity from the other person.”
This is where I start to have more of a problem with the CNN article and others like it. Let’s start with the idea of “demanding fidelity.” First, the idea that fidelity has to equal “not having sex with other people” is an assumption that not everyone makes. Lots of people create relationships where the rule isn’t “don’t have sex with anyone else,” but rather “when you have sex with someone else, these are the boundaries and rules.” There are plenty of different ways that people create those rules, and one thing that they tend to have in common is that fidelity means “strict observance of promises, duties, etc.” rather than “only have sex with me.” In these relationships, having sex with other people (within the rules of the relationship) isn’t “infidelity.”
Second, when is it ever really helpful to demand something from a partner who didn’t want to give it willingly? Of course, we can ask a partner for something and if we’re willing to engage in a dialogue about what we each want and what we can each offer, there’s often plenty of room to come to an agreement. But “demand”? In my experience, that easily leads to resentment, secrets, and a disconnection between people, even when the thing demanded might have been given willingly.
Giordano’s quote also assumes that romance is an either/or. Either you have it or you don’t. But it’s a lot more complex because romance means different things to different people and because it really exists along a spectrum. And it’s entirely possible for people to be sexual friends with some romance woven into the relationship without having to be checking each other out as potential life partners.
The article continues:
When people have sex with a friend, they tend to be more trusting that the person doesn’t have a sexually transmitted disease and therefore fail to use a condom, she says.
“If you’ve known a person for a while, you don’t have that vigilance. You’re probably not going to ask them to go and get tested for STDs,” Giordano said.
Well, sure. People often trust friends, even when that’s not really justified. How about that time that you let someone borrow $50 and they never paid you back. Or the person who needed a couch to crash on “for a few days” that turned into weeks. And of course, the friend you’re having sex with might not even know that they have an STI. Lots of people don’t. That’s why we need comprehensive sex education that helps people understand the facts AND make decisions to take care of themselves.
One of the things that gets in the way of this is that we still have this idea that love, romance, monogamy, marriage, and sex have to go together. That’s certainly part of the message of abstinence-only miseducation and purity balls. These messages are usually blended with a whole lot of shame, along with misinformation and plain old lies. Convincing people to believe something by lying about it is a pretty strong signal that you’re talking bullshit. If you can’t be honest about it, then what are the odds that it’s true?
The spread of STIs isn’t just because of the numbers of sexual partners or concurrency. It’s also about sex education, the ability to negotiate safer sex, whether we can create relationship structures that offer room for both freedom and responsibility, being able to communicate with our partners, what kinds of sex we have, and how we feel about it. Rather than being about whether people have multiple partners, it’s really about how people have multiple partners.
Unfortunately, it’s always easier to write something about how casual sex or non-monogamy or multiple partners is inherently bad. By ignoring the complexities of the issue, writers can hammer something out much more quickly and they don’t really need to understand the topic. I’d really love to see someone tackle these issues with a deeper understanding of the issues. It might not fit into a nice sound bite, but at least we could avoid the erotophobic and shaming language that tends to dominate these sorts of articles.